sun 23/06/2024

So Long, My Son review - an intimate Chinese epic | reviews, news & interviews

So Long, My Son review - an intimate Chinese epic

So Long, My Son review - an intimate Chinese epic

Four decades of loss and love, scarred by the state

Family bonds: Xingxing (Wu Jiacheng), Liyun (Yong Mei) and Yaujun (Wang Jingchun)

Two young boys play by the water. Soon, one is dead. This enigmatic tragedy is the core of a four-decade Chinese saga of grief, guilt and love, at once intimately personal and scarred by the state’s grinding turns.

Director Wang Xiaoshuai shuffles time like a stacked deck’s cards, withholding vital facts, but keeping his camera on the lost boy’s parents, Yaojun (Wang Jingchun) and Liyun (Yong Mei). Although years and memories crush them, they keep on.

Mao’s Cultural Revolution is recalled. But it’s the Eighties’ One Child Policy which haunts this story. Liyun and Yaojun are best friends with fellow factory-workers Haiyan (Ai Liya) and Yingming (Xu Cheng), with their respective sons Xingxing and Hao even born on the same day. But Haiyan uses her petty power in the Communist Party to force Liyun’s abortion of a second child. Then it’s Hao who is involved with Xingxing’s drowning.

As we gradually understand, this has sent Liyun and Yaojun tumbling away to the provincial town where we first encounter them, raising a resentful, adopted teenage substitute also named Xingxing. Youjun numbs and jolts himself with baijiu shots, and runs a repair shop out among the sleepy fishing nets. It’s a place to wash up. “We like it,” he says stoically. “We know no one...nothing. Not even their dialect.” And to Liyun: “Time stopped for us long ago. Now we’re just waiting to grow old.”

Family and friends in So Lomg, My SonWang has endured state re-education, and portrays lives where such punishment is one barely remarked fact among many. Hushed conversations as kettles boil dodge denunciation, and apartment dance parties mix joy with fear of execution. Hollow bureaucratic language remains constant with private enterprise’s arrival (“There’s no shame in redundancy, more iron rice bowl!” – the latter a bitter boast after the millions Mao starved). Back in the city, Haiyan’s Party prominence morphs into entrepreneurial wealth, and pretty young Moli (Qi Xi, pictured above left) heads to the States, after a bittersweet hotel reunion with former mentor Youjun. Our ageing couple’s old apartment becomes a dusty relic amid thrusting high-rises, and hospitals gleam with prosperity they missed.

Yaojun (Wang Jingchun) and Liyun (Yong Mei) in So Long, My SonYasujiro Ozu’s discarded parents in Tokyo Story (1953) come to mind. Youjun’s oaken worker’s strength shoulders the invisible burden of dead Xingxing and his miserable, delinquent substitute, and his uselessness as successive children are snatched away. Liyun believes he’s not bright, and his face is mostly a craggy mask. Softer beauty first pierces its suppressed pain and rage in Moli’s youthful company (she, seeming liberated, also suffers regret). Middle-aged Liyun meanwhile moves distractedly, as if something has been permanently misplaced. Though present and future mingle too, tiles on Xang’s smooth mosaic, the past weighs this couple down. Punk-haired teenagers, Xang’s more usual subject, mope in their modern path, no happier. Yet over time, Youjun and Liyun reach out to hold each other.

So Long, My Son’s three hours can be contemplatively still, in wide communal long-shots or lone close-ups, but never drag, thanks to black humour and copious drama. It’s a masterful social epic.

Though present and future mingle too, tiles on Xang’s smooth mosaic, the past weighs this couple down


Editor Rating: 
Average: 4 (1 vote)

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Well written review Nick. Just one historical/factual correction - the iron rice bowl was a well known phrase in China pre the market economy reforms of the late 80s/early 90s as a metaphor of the job-for-life promised under Communism. 'Smashing the iron rice bowl' was another euphemism for mass redundancies and 'Going into the Sea' an euphemism for those redundant workers forced to start their own businesses and dip their toes in entrepreneurship.

Thank you for that nuanced bit of info, RL...

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